Angelica Galang's teammates call her "Jelly," but as nicknames go, "The Enforcer" might be a better fit. "I don't know why I'm even thinking about this. I like knocking people out of the way," she said. It is one of the things she loves about wheelchair rugby. Angelica's path to this extreme side of disabled sports began with a diagnosis that could have ended her life.
The former gymnast was living in the dorms at UCLA when she began losing her balance. "I think literally, in that six months, I fell down the stairs between 12 and 15 times," she recalled. Doctors at UCSF soon confirmed the cause. "We were shocked to see the findings on her MRI scan. Her neurological examination was normal, but she had a tumor within the center of the spinal cord, in the upper segments which control breathing," Neurosurgeon Philip Weinstein explained.
Weinstein believed he could remove the tumor, but he advised Angelica and her mom that the price of saving her life might mean loss of motor function in her arms or legs. Two prominent medical centers had already declined the procedure. "It's an extremely challenging operation because of the vital structures surrounding the tumor," Weinstein said.
In a 10-hour operation, the UCSF team removed sections of vertebrae from Angelica's neck then began carefully ressecting the tumor, at the same time, anxiously watching the output from electrodes set up to monitor her nerve function as they cut. At several points during the procedure, Weinstein says the neural signals in the spinal cord were interrupted, but the team decided to continue. "After we had completely surrounded the tumor with the dissection that separated it from the spinal cord, we felt technically very encouraged that a complete removal could be accomplished," he said.
Surgeons were able to save angelica's life but when she woke, she learned how long the road back would be. "Then I see my mom. I remember I tried to kind of wave my arm or just give her a 'Hey, I'm OK,' and I couldn't move my arm," she remembered.
Months of painful rehabilitation brought her the ability to move standing up, with the help of forearm crutches. But, like the sport she plays, she found her life was moving far faster than her body was healing. So, she made one more tough decision, to use a wheelchair in the short term.
Her therapist told her about the rugby team. A lot of people do think I'm crazy. When my mom came in to watch, she was kind of going like this the whole time, cringing," Angelica said. "And I don't blame her. She says the sport gives her confidence and an outlet for her energy.
Fellow player Scotty Pope has watched her develop. "She would just come out and kind of right of the bat, she instinctively knew things that most of us would take years," he said. And, using that wheelchair for now allowed her to focus on her studies, finishing college, and getting into a top flight law school, something she says she could not have done if she had focused solely on her physical rehabilitation.
She says her new dream is to help other disabled people. "If I wasn't disabled, I really think that my life would mostly have just been about me. Obviously, hopefully I will have a career. I have lots of goals and aspirations. They're just not just about me anymore and honestly, I think that's the beauty of it all," she said.
It is beauty with a good dose of toughness thrown in.
Angelica is still waiting for letters from other law schools, but right now, she is planning to attend Boalt at UC Berkeley next fall.